LEXINGTON, Ky. – Shannon Dawson could’ve literally kicked Mark Stoops in the crotch Saturday night and been kinder to Kentucky’s football coach. What Dawson did instead, lighting up his former boss who badly needed it to go the other way, left Stoops in far worse shape.
With the Wildcats’ fan base in prove-it mode, UK opened Stoops’ fourth season with a 44-35 loss at home against Southern Miss. The final score doesn’t come close to conveying the misery within: a blown 25-point lead punctuated by Dawson – fired as the Cats’ offensive coordinator after last season – dancing beneath a Gatorade shower on the visiting sideline at Commonwealth Stadium.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever in my career, ever wanted to apologize for a game, but that’s a tough pill to swallow right there, and I do,” Stoops said. “Our fans deserved better.”
About those fans: They’re gone now, and he knows it.
After Kentucky started 5-1 in 2014 and 4-1 in 2015 and still managed not to make a bowl game either season, many of the faithful gave up hope. Even with mass ticket giveaways this week, Saturday’s announced attendance of 57,230 was well short of a sellout and about 5,000 shy of last year’s opening crowd.
Now the Wildcats head to The Swamp – they’ve lost 29 in a row to Florida – meaning there’s a good chance they’ll be returning home with an 0-2 record to play New Mexico State on Sept. 17. In other words, that might be the smallest crowd at a UK football game since the one that got Joker Phillips fired in 2012.
A sad-faced Stoops said he understands why some fans will fall away now, but that doesn’t change the fact that “it hurts.” Humbled by this latest, lowest setback, he pleaded Saturday night.
“We need them,” Stoops said. “I ask them not to bail on us, because this football team’s got a lot of good games in them.”
That was much easier to sell with 56 seconds left in the first half against Southern Miss. In that moment, hope for Kentucky football had rushed back in like water through an unkinked hose. New offensive coordinator Eddie Gran and quarterback Drew Barker were cranking the faucet.
With Gran pushing all the right buttons and Barker firing strikes, the former high school All-American threw for 287 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions by halftime – connecting on throws of 33, 41, 43, 53 and 72 yards. Against the Conference USA favorites, no less.
It was a thing of beauty, an offense at long last come to life, and Kentucky had outgained the Golden Eagles 387 yards to 188. The Wildcats led 35-10. But there were still those 56 seconds left before the half, and an eternity to go on the other side of that break.
Southern Miss connected on an inexcusable, 71-yard touchdown toss with 26 ticks remaining in the second quarter – it was wide open, untouched – and the comeback was on. Under Dawson’s direction, the Golden Eagles rolled up 366 yards and 34 unanswered points to close the game.
Kentucky’s supercharged offense? Fifty-six yards and three turnovers in the second half. Barker fumbled twice and threw an interception. Same old Kentucky, said rivals and longsuffering fans alike.
Hard to argue. The last time the Cats played in this stadium, with bowl eligibility on the line, they blew a 21-0 lead against rival Louisville in the 2015 finale. The Cardinals outscored them 38-3 to finish that game, in part because UK could not stop the run – a seasons-long affliction.
Stoops, a former Florida State coordinator, was supposed to fix the defense by now. Instead, Southern Miss ran for 262 yards on the Cats, including two tailbacks hitting the 100-yard mark.
It was Mark Stoops’ worst nightmare, a fresh mound of doubt dumped all over the vision he’s been hawking for four years.
“Everybody has the right to question what we’re doing,” he said, “and we’ll stay the course.”
He tried to focus on those positives – Barker’s good half, receivers Garrett Johnson and Tavin Richardson and Jeff Badet making big plays, three early interceptions by the defense – but it was telling that Stoops circled back.
He knows this was bad. Very bad. Irreversibly bad? At the very least, Southern Miss was one of the games Kentucky counted on in its pursuit of six wins needed for the program’s first bowl berth since 2010. The postseason is a significantly tougher ask now.
“Once again,” he said, “I apologize, because our fans do deserve better and that’s not acceptable and I get it.”
* Follow Kyle on Twitter @KyleTucker_AJC. Email me at Kyle.Tucker@ajc.com.